It’s time to hit the brakes on high-speed rail spending


All over the country, states are spending tens of millions of dollars preparing plans to build high-speed rail lines. Among the many routes under consideration are Ft. Collins to Pueblo, Colorado; Richmond, Virginia to Raleigh, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Seattle to Spokane, Washington, which would probably require an 80-mile-long tunnel under the Cascade Mountains.

None of these projects make sense because — in case you haven’t noticed — we have this new-fangled technology called airplanes that go twice as fast as the fastest trains in the world and require almost no infrastructure, which means their costs are much lower than trains. So why are Americans so bedazzled by trains?

In 2017, fares on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela trains between Boston and Washington averaged 92 cents a passenger mile. Although Amtrak claims these trains cover their operating costs, Amtrak is also desperately lobbying Congress for $35 billion to rehabilitate the infrastructure required to keep the trains running. By comparison, airline fares average around 15 cents a passenger mile, and while the airlines receive subsidies averaging about a penny per passenger mile, most of those subsidies go to tiny, out-of-the-way airports that most travelers never see.

{mosads}California is now reporting even greater cost overruns for its San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail line. Originally projected to cost $45 billion inflation-adjusted dollars, it is now expected to cost well over twice that much. Before any of the estimates were made, a University of California, Berkeley transportation engineer calculated that, even if the rail line cost only $15 billion to build, it would still cost less to fly or drive than to take the train.


Rail advocates claim that high-speed rail has a competitive advantage over flying or driving on trips of about 200 to 600 miles. In fact, no such advantage exists. Consider the Northeast Corridor, which is really two corridors — Boston to New York and New York to Washington — of about 225 miles each. Amtrak claims that it carries more passengers than the airlines in these corridors. What it doesn’t mention is that nearly 90 percent of intercity travel in these corridors uses the highway and that low-cost carriers such as Megabus and Bolt Bus carry more travelers than Amtrak.

Rail advocates also like to claim that downtown-to-downtown times on some high-speed rail trips will be faster than by plane, since most airports aren’t located near downtowns and air travelers have to go through time-consuming airport security. But this is irrelevant, as fewer than 8 percent of Americans live or work near big-city downtowns, and many major urban areas have more than one airport, giving travelers a choice of using the one that is most convenient for them. 

If airport security is a problem, it would be a lot less expensive to streamline security than to build multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail lines. In fact, the Transportation Security Administration’s known traveler identification program already allows anyone who signs up to speed through security without long lines.

Back in 1964, when Japan introduced the world’s first trains scheduled to go at 130 miles per hour, America was undergoing a crisis of confidence. We were afraid of losing the space race (which we won); we were afraid there was a missile gap between the USSR and US (there wasn’t); and we were afraid Japan was becoming an economic and technological powerhouse that would overtake the United States in numerous fields (that powerhouse sputtered and died in 1990).

High-speed trains were just one more technological race we seemed to be losing. Never mind that airplanes traveled far faster than 130 miles per hour; Congress passed the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act in 1965 to fund high-speed trains between Boston and Washington.

The reality was that passenger trains were already obsolete. A 1958 Interstate Commerce Commission study predicted that, without government intervention, intercity passenger trains would disappear by 1970. That intervention first took the form of government refusals to allow the railroads to discontinue money-losing trains and then, in 1970, the creation of Amtrak.

The history of transportation is a history of technological replacements. Steamboats replaced sailing ships; canals replaced wagons; railroads replaced canals and riverboats; electric streetcars replaced horsecars; diesel locomotives replaced steam locomotives; and so forth. Some of us might feel nostalgic enough about some of these replacements to spend our own money on museums and tourist operations. But, in most cases, the government hasn’t spent billions of dollars trying to turn back the clock on these new technologies.

The exception is passenger trains, including both intercity and urban rail transit. Expensive to build, even more expensive to maintain, trains can only go where the tracks go. The nation has only about 150,000 miles of tracks compared with four million miles of roads and hundreds of commercial airports. While railroads are great for moving freight, and the United States has the most efficient freight rail system in the world, they are no longer suitable for passengers.

So why are states spending so much money planning new rail lines? In 2009 and 2010, Congress agreed to let the Obama administration hand out $10 billion for high-speed rail projects, and the only requirement was that the projects be “shovel-ready.” The money spigot turned off when Republicans took over Congress in 2011, but someday, the states figure, the Democrats will retake Congress and start spending money on high-speed trains again. So they are trying to write all of the plans necessary to make their projects shovel-ready.

I love passenger trains as much as anyone and more than most. But I don’t think other taxpayers should have to subsidize my hobby any more than if I were a lover of manual typewriters, telegraphs, or horseback riding. The states should stop wasting money planning obsolete transportation projects and members of Congress, whether Republican or Democrat, should stop encouraging them to do so.

Randal O’Toole is the director of the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver, and author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.

Tags High-speed rail Infrastructure Rail transport Rail transportation in the United States Randal O'Toole Trains Transportation

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